Vauxhall Astra: Stand out in a crowd of dumpy SUVs
By far the best thing about the new Vauxhall Astra is its looks. We sort of get used to the idea that mass-market cars tend to be a bit bland and inoffensive; a consequence of the “lowest common denominator” effect, whereby you avoid offending the majority of possible buyers at the expense of the few who are looking for something more distinctive (and who might be best off looking at one of the premium German brands, with their outrageously massive grilles and in-yer-face styling).
But the Astra, a bestseller for years that deserves to be so once again, is simply one of the best-looking cars to emerge in recent times, in whatever sector.
Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Auto
Price: £32,565 (as tested; range starts at £24,295)
Engine capacity: 1.2l-petrol, 3-cyl, 8sp auto
Power output (hp): 128
Top speed (mph): 130
0 to 60 (seconds): 9.7
Fuel economy (mpg): 38.7
CO2 emissions (WLTP, g/km): 131
There’s a lot to enjoy about it. It bucks the trend for small SUVs, and doubles down by exaggerating its low-slung stance, which gives it a sporty sort of vibe (it isn’t, by the way, but still). The “visor” front styling, with thin headlights reminiscent of the slits in a medieval helmet, adds a narrow-eyed, mean look, like the one on Melania Trump’s face when Donald tries to hold her hand.
The piano-black grille, a new Vauxhall trademark, is a bit too black, and could do with a few chrome highlights around the Vauxhall griffin badge – but again, it’s distinctive, and generally the black detailing is very tastefully done. Order one with black paintwork, and it’s almost featureless; just a shape.
The designer, Mark Adams, and his team have also paid a little homage to some past Vauxhall/Opel designs, given that the model started its evolutionary life as an Opel Kadett many decades ago. Car spotters will note the wedge of louvred plastic just past the rear windows, a feature of the Mk I and II Vauxhall Astra, and I’m sure the slightly beaky bonnet with the mild ridge running down it is borrowed from the Opel Manta A, a nice old coupe from the 1970s.
So this is a German car, made once more in the Adam Opel AG, as was, factory at Russelsheim in Hesse, designed by a team lead by an Englishman, and now owned by Stellantis, which is basically Peugeot, which is headquartered in France. A tribute, unfashionable as it may seem, to European integration, then. But although it looks very much akin to a Vauxhall or an Opel, as a modern Stellantis product it drives and feels much more like its siblings, the Peugeot 308 and DS4, than like the older Astras made when Vauxhall and Opel were owned by General Motors.
So that means light, simple controls, and nice clear graphics, with the right number of buttons on the dash for essential functions and a bias towards comfort. I particularly liked the supportive orthopaedic seats. The automated gearbox in my example could be a bit dozy, and the three-cylinder 1.2-litre petrol engine a touch thrummy, but nothing that should disquiet the average driver. The only actual fault was a slight vibration at higher speeds, coming from somewhere around the front passenger door trim.
The usual suite of driver aids and connectivity is available. Three trim levels, and a range of petrol models, plug-in hybrids, a single diesel option, and a choice of manual and auto transmissions, take you from the base models at about £24,000 to the top of the range at £35,000. An all-electric battery-powered variant will arrive next year. There’s also a quite funky estate model, but sadly no sign of a coupe or three-door. It’d be nice to think there’d be a hot hatch version, too: we shall see.
This is the eighth iteration (I like that word) of the model since its launch under the Vauxhall brand in the UK more than 40 years ago, and you’d have trouble trying to remember what some of them looked like, though they were usually a good steer, and pretty durable and reliable. This one is very likely the last to be fitted with an internal combustion engine, as Vauxhall envisages full electrification in 2028 (ambitious).
The new Astra also blends some of the best of the old Astra tradition with the best of what the Stellantis group has to offer, but will be less ubiquitous too, because of the inexorable trend towards SUVs. Yet you can ignore all those dumpy SUVs, get yourself into a very smart hatch, and stand out from the crowd. In an Astra, for heaven’s sake.